Most workplaces have some emotionally toxic people who create unpleasantness for colleagues. And no matter how competent we are at dealing with the idiosyncrasies of others in the workplace, toxic people – folks who are overly negative, irrational or needy – can drive us to distraction, our skills melting like snow in the spring.
Travis Bradberry, the San-Diego-based psychologist who co-wrote the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, said in an interview that "toxic people pose a difficult challenge even for people who are skilled in emotional intelligence. They know how to push buttons."
Emotional intelligence involves keeping our emotions under control, but with toxic people that control is often absent. In a TalentSmart Newsletter article, Mr. Bradberry set out some strategies to handle toxic people in an emotionally intelligent way:
Toxic people will complain and want you to join what he calls their "pity party." Don't get sucked in. "Think of it this way: If the complainer were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? You'd distance yourself, and you should do the same with complainers. A great way to set limits is to ask complainers how they intend to fix the problem. They will either quiet down or redirect the conversation in a productive direction," he writes.
Don't die in the fight
You need to know when things are going haywire and remove yourself from the battle with a toxic colleague. In the interview, he quotes rapper Jay Z: "A wise man told me don't argue with fools/Cause people from a distance can't tell who is who." Live to fight another day.
Toxic people's behaviour can be so irrational you get tricked into responding emotionally to them. But you shouldn't. The more irrational they are, the easier it should be for you to create some distance. Treat them like a science project, observing it all from a distance, perhaps learning something in the process. And don't condone their behaviour, even if some of what they say is justified.
Stay aware of your emotions
Toxic people are expert button pushers but you can't stop that – or maintain your emotional distance – if you aren't even aware it's happening. Give yourself some time to consider what is happening so you can respond in the best possible way. "Think of it this way – if a mentally unstable person approaches you on the street and tells you he's John F. Kennedy, you're unlikely to set him straight. When you find yourself with a co-worker who is engaged in similarly derailed thinking, sometimes it's best to just smile and nod. If you're going to have to straighten them out, it's better to give yourself some time to plan the best way to go about it," he writes.
It's important that you establish boundaries – the things you won't accept. This can be difficult but you have to determine the ways you will interact with the individual and the ways you won't. "Toxic people respond to boundaries. It's like raising a child. They understand what is appropriate and will be tolerated and what won't be," he said in the interview.
Don't let your joy be limited
Don't let the judgmental comments of the toxic colleague take you down. If you're feeling good about your accomplishments, don't let go of that joy. Your self-worth must come from within, not without – and certainly not be determined by a toxic colleague's negativism.
Focus on solutions
When you fixate on problems, you just drag yourself down emotionally. Instead, focus on actions to improve circumstances and the resulting personal progress will produce positive emotions and reduce stress. Don't wallow in the chaos the individual creates.
Forgive but don't forget
You can forgive – emotionally intelligent people are actually quick to forgive – but don't forget the disturbing behaviour. "Let go of the hurt and forgive – but don't forgive and get burned again," he warns.
Squash negative self-talk
It can be easy to absorb the negativity of the other person and get drawn into an internal negative spiral. Avoid negative self-talk at all costs.
Get lots of sleep
The more caffeinated you are, the more easily you can succumb to instinctive responses, which prevent you from rising above, setting boundaries, and thinking rationally. Sleep is vital for solving problems creatively and seems to improve emotional control. "You need to be at your best to deal with these people successfully and it's hard to do that if you don't get a good night's sleep or take in too much caffeine," he said.
Use your support system
Don't deal with this alone. Build allies who can help you objectively deal with the situation. But stay away from rampant negativity. "It doesn't improve your situation to complain the person is crazy. They may be. But what are you going to do about it?" he asks.
What you are going to do is maintain your emotional intelligence through the steps he outlines.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org